If you think browsing court records in public policy lawsuits is a sensible use of time -- and since you're reading this publication, you may -- here's a warning that, if you don't work in California or federal government, the best time to read court documents in Sacramento Superior Court is before July 1. On that date, unless local court officials relent, online case records will become expensively paywalled.

The fee plan, which is still tentative for now (comments are due June 6) has been criticized locally as a setback for public access, and as a special hardship for security companies and others conducting background checks or interested in criminal cases. The Sacramento Bee's editorial board called it "unfortunate but not outrageous."

But the fee plan's effects extend far beyond the local concerns of one county. Sacramento County Superior Court judges regularly hear matters of statewide importance, including disputes that both affect and shed light on the deep levers of California power relations. In the area of land use, such topics include water rights, state authority over major public works, taxation, and the post-redevelopment wind-down. Concerned Californians throughout the state will now have to pay to research such matters unless they qualify for exemption as participants in the case researched.

Name searches will cost a dollar each, or somewhat less at bulk rates for frequent searchers. PDF document downloads will cost a dollar for each of the first five pages and 40 cents for each page thereafter, up to a maximum of $40 per document.

Because of a fee exemption for California and federal governmental staff, private individuals and organizations will face a lopsided obligation to pay for research on cases where they are not direct participants.

The fee plan's major way of accommodating researchers who can't afford document fees will be to let them visit the courthouse in person and view records at kiosks. That may be practical if the case is, say, a Sacramento eviction and the researcher is a local Sacramento tenant researching a landlord's course of conduct. It becomes less practical if the researcher is a civic activist living in Bakersfield and the case is, say, the document-heavy four-year litigation on the validity of the Monterey Plus Project that followed from the Monterey Amendment water rights agreement on water deliveries to Southern California. (This is the litigation that recently produced a decision invalidating the EIR for current management of the Kern Water Bank, discussed at http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3456.)

An advantage of the new system is that people with accounts can subscribe to notifications of filings in cases whether or not they are participants. Also, a researcher who knows a case number (or a criminal defendant's XREF number) may call up the case docket for free. It's just name searches and documents that cost.

In news interviews and their own announcement memo, local court officials have attributed the paywalling to budget cuts and to the need to pay for the sophisticated new data portal that will be managing the paywalling process. The new portal won an award in November.

The new portal, which went live in early April, is already requiring users to establish a free account to search for cases by party name or to download documents. Although searches and PDF downloads are currently free, they already must be obtained through an account that allows for "Purchases" of name searches and, for PDFs, a "Document Cart" and "Checkout" process. These processes take the user through the hair-raising step of racking up fees that would apply if the order were after July 1. In a major long-running litigation docket like the Monterey/Kern dispute, the cost for PDFs of the complex administrative and scientific record can get into thousands of dollars. Those thousands are currently hypothetical but as of July 1 they will be real enough.

Below is a starting list of Sacramento case numbers, and links to lists of Sacramento cases, on widely followed issues with statewide effect such as water disputes, high-speed rail and post-redevelopment disputes. Readers are invited to share more case numbers in comments at the foot of this article or on CP&DR's Twitter account at http://twitter.com/Cal_Plan.

- Court notice describing the fee plan and explaining where to send comments by June 6: http://bit.ly/1oHb0xj
- November 2013 press release on the court's award for its new access system: http://bit.ly/1ji7hBc
- Court site's main explanation on the new fee system: https://services.saccourt.ca.gov/PublicCaseAccess/
- Public Case Access account creation page:
- Sacramento Bee on the paywalling plans: http://bit.ly/1jQJXzd
- Sacramento News & Review on hardships for security companies: http://bit.ly/1nyfQ2s
- Sacramento Bee on implications for criminal courts research: http://bit.ly/1sCUu3C
- Sacramento Bee editorial -- "unfortunate but not outrageous": http://bit.ly/1jwY2SM

Starting list of case numbers and listings of cases:

Sacramento Superior Court Complex Case Calendar:

Dispute between San Diego County and some cities in the county over post-redevelopment tax revenues: City of Chula Vista v. Sandoval, Case No. 34-2014-80001723

Dispute, currently on appeal, over the validity of California's cap-and-trade program:
California Chamber of Commerce v. California Air Resources Board, Case No. 34-2012-80001313 and 34-2012-80001464

Monterey Plus and Kern Water Bank litigation described above, in two companion cases:
Central Delta Water Agency, et al. v. CA Dept. of Water Resources, Case No. 34-2010-80000561
Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District v. CA Dept. of Water Resources, Case No. 34-2010-80000703

Challenges to the validity of High Speed Rail bond financing, now on appeal with 3d Appellate District (see news coverage at http://cbsloc.al/1jihRIn):
John Tos vs. California High Speed Rail Authority, Case No. 34-2011-00113919
High Speed Rail Authority v. All Persons Interested..., Case No. 34-2013-00140689

Challenges to the Merced-Fresno scection of the High-Speed Rail project in litigation that is now mainly concluded: Case Nos. 34-2012-80001165, 34-2012-80001166 and  34-2012-80001168

The key opening post-Redevelopment case, League of CA Cities v Matosantos, decided in December 2013 (Many documents at https://www.cacities.org/AB1484lawsuit): Case No. 34-2012-80001275

The key post-Redevelopment clawback case, recently also appealed, of City of Brentwood v. CA Dept. of Finance, discussed at http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3478: Case No. 34-2013-80001568. (Direct link to online docket:  http://bit.ly/1kdSwmQ.)

Post-Redevelopment successor agencies' disputes with the state Department of Finance, all in Sacramento county courts, summarized with case numbers at the Gibson Dunn site: http://bit.ly/1mMsrP9

February 18 summary of post-Redevelopment court cases by the League of California Cities site, naming Sacramento County Superior Court judges and departments, and case numbers minus the uniform Sacramento County prefix of "34-": http://bit.ly/1jNWNdy.

Verizon's property tax dispute with 38 California counties:
Verizon California Inc. v. California State Board of Equalization, et al.,
Case No. 34-2014-00157245

Readers, what other cases of statewide importance would you add?